Thoughts for the new year

Didier Drogba (left) has clearly outshone team-mate Andrei Shevchenko in the Chelsea attack.-AP Didier Drogba (left) has clearly outshone team-mate Andrei Shevchenko in the Chelsea attack.

American sports fans are used to enjoying the best of whatever sport they follow, whether it be baseball, basketball, ice hockey or that horrific derivative of Rugby, the gridiron game.

It looks, at this moment, that David Beckham is going to leave Real Madrid, where at the end of 2006 he was being pretty comprehensively humiliated, and end up playing in Los Angeles. Which would no doubt delight his cadaverous, ferentically ambitious wife, alias Relatively Posh Spice, who has joyfully been associating with Tom Cruise and his new spouse. The rumour is that what Cruise really wants from the Beckhams is a commitment to the bizarre beliefs of Scientology, but we shall have to wait and see.

Frankly, though Beckham, apart from the odd free kick, had a wretched World Cup. I don't think he has declined sufficiently to be ready for the backwater of the MLS. And if there are any thoughts among its leaders that his mere presence, whatever huge quantities of watches, sun glasses and whatever he can sell, will suddenly turn soccer into a major American sport, they can forget it. If that far greater footballer Pele couldn't manage it, how could Beckham?

For, the sad truth is that there is no logical progression from the millions of Americans, both male and female, who now play the game, and the development of the professional league. Long ago, before the 1994 World Cup began in the USA, I forecast first that it would be a huge success, which it duly was, secondly that this would have no effect at all, rather than a negative one, on the development of pro football in the States.

The point being, and it is still all too valid, that American sports fans are used to enjoying the best of whatever sport they follow, whether it be baseball, basketball, ice hockey or that horrific derivative of Rugby, the gridiron game. Having seen and enjoyed the best during the 1994 World Cup, why should they want to watch teams made up of foreign players on their last legs and former college boys? A situation now exacerbated by the fact that, when American soccer does produce talent, which it now increasingly does, the player will be off to Europe to make money, thus exacerbating the whole problem of providing acceptable football. A vicious circle, in fact, and though I have much admiration for my old friend Sunil Gulati, the gifted academic (he lectures Economics at Columbia University) who is now top man at the American soccer body, I cannot see what even as able an administrator as himself can hope to achieve.

Meanwhile Real Madrid themselves have just been reinforced, and how badly they need it, by two remarkable young Argentines. The cornucopia of talent from that country and Brazil, forever raided by the European clubs, seems absolutely inexhaustible. The latest precocious stars are Gonzale Higuain, 19, the River Plate striker, who in fact has French nationality, and Fernando Ruben Gago, 20, the Boca Juniors midfielder. They have both cost massive fees; Real must hope they have found another David Trezeguet, the son of an Argentine who played much of his football in France, while his son, though born in France and thus like Higuain being qualified to play for Les Bleus, grew up in Argentinian football, later, of course, becoming a major figure in the French national team.

Brazil, meanwhile, have just featured a superbly precocious young talent in the International of Porto Alegre striker, Pato, 17, who is already being spoken of as a �10 million player if one of the several major European clubs, boundlessly rich Chelsea reportedly among them, succeed in prising him away. One assumes that, given the ever-rocky financial situation of almost every South American club, however distinguished, it will be happening sooner, rather than later. Pato figured in the remarkable World Club Cup final success won by his team in Yokahama against mighty Barcelona.

In fact, he had to come off the field injured, of all things after a clash with his own Brazilian idol, Ronaldinho, playing against him for Barcelona: beaten 1-0. There was some consolation in the fact that afterwards, Ronaldinho gave him his shirt. This was an astonishing feat by Internacional, since even after they had won the Libertadores Cup which qualified them for the Final, they lost no fewer than four of their best players, among them the Brazilian international attacker, Rafael Sobis who, like Wagner, left for Betis Seville. Unperturbed, the club manager, Abelao Braga, simply promoted seven youngsters. Intent on retaining the Libertadores Cup, they announce that they'll enter their reserve team in the regional championship.

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad, was saying of the ancient Greeks, and one feels it could well be applied to Charlton Athletic. Abandoned at the end of last season by their long established and effective manager, Alan Curbishley, who has now taken over at another of his old clubs as a player, West Ham United, with instant success, they tempted Iain Dowie away from Crystal Palace, sacked him abruptly and surely rashly when things were going wrong, and inexplicably installed, not another experienced manager but their veteran coach Les Reed, under whom things went still worse.

I saw Charlton thrashed 5-1 at Tottenham; whereupon they gave Reed, clearly at sea, a three-year contract. Now after further disasters they have dismissed him, to engage Alan Pardew, another former player, just sacked by the Icelandic owners of West Ham. But it may well be too late to avoid the financial disaster of relegation from the Premiership. What is it that makes football club directors behave like lemmings? Pardew will have his work cut out, but Les was always likely to be Broken Reed.

At Chelsea, one waits to see whether Andrei Shevchenko, a �30 million failure so far, can recover form and his manager Mourinho's confidence. Didier Drogba has wholly outshone him in attack.